Southeast

Infant mortality rates in Southeast reveal health gaps in Fort Wayne and inspire support for fathers

As the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matters movement hit cities simultaneously in 2020, Americans have been waking up to health disparities in their communities related to race.

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics reports that as of June 12, age-adjusted COVID-19 hospitalization rates are five times higher for Black compared with white patients. On top of that, Black people are dying from COVID-19 at a rate two and one-half times higher than white people.

But while these numbers may be new evidence of the health gap, it’s not the first evidence that exists.

“One of the most stark racial disparities between Black and white Americans is in maternal and fetal mortality,” the Markkula Center says. “It is also one of the better-studied areas of health disparity, and may offer some insights not only into why the disparities exist, but what needs to be done to bring justice to the system and to society.”

Data from the Indiana State Department of Health.

In 2017, Allen County's infant mortality rate (IMR) was 7.3 deaths per 1,000 live births, which is worse than the national rate of 5.8. But in the 46806 zip code of Southeast Fort Wayne, the IMR (calculated 2013-2017) was more than double that statistic, at 15.4 deaths per 1,000 live births—making it the fourth highest IMR in the state.

But even within the 46806 zip code, there’s a huge disparity among babies of different races. The IMR for white babies in 46806 is 13.1, whereas the IMR for Black babies is nearly twice that at 22.2.

Data from the Indiana State Department of Health.

The obvious takeaway is that more needs to be done to address race and health disparities in Fort Wayne. Fortunately, Healthier Moms and Babies (HMB), located in the Summit Campus at 1025 W Rudisill Blvd., is approaching the issue from multiple angles.

While many programs across the city focus on improving the health and resources available to mothers and their newborns, HMB launched a fatherhood initiative in 2019 to support dads throughout the pregnancy process, too.

Healthier Moms & Babies is located on the Summit Campus at 1025 W Rudisill Blvd.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than one in four children live without a father in the home. These numbers are often higher in predominantly Black and Brown communities, which have been targeted by the drug wars, red zones, and other structural factors designed to tear the family unit apart throughout U.S. history.

For babies who do survive, the reality of growing up without a father has grave implications, too. These children are four times more likely to live in poverty, more likely to go to prison, and seven times more likely to become pregnant as teens, so in many ways, supporting healthy moms and babies starts with supporting fathers and creating structures that retain healthy, stable families units.

Paige Wilkins, HMB’s Executive Director, has served in the nonprofit sector for 20 years. She learned a lot about these challenges in her first role as a Home Visitor for a child abuse and prevention program.

“I learned so much about the challenges and the barriers families need to overcome,” she says, pointing to examples as a lack of transportation, mental health challenges, domestic violence, and trauma.

Wilkins

As a result, Wilkins feels that parents facing these challenges could benefit from the services HMB provides.

Having fathers engaged throughout the pregnancy process lowers the risk of infant mortality and improves birth outcomes, too, says Chelsea Harris, the Health and Wellness Coordinator at HMB.

“I believe in what I do because I know how necessary it is to play a proactive and supportive role for the women in our community,” she says.

Harris

To head up HMB’s new fatherhood initiative, Wilkins hired Gregg Smith-Causey, who is a Black father in Southeast Fort Wayne himself. After a few exchanges with Smith-Causey, Wilkins felt that he was a perfect fit for the role, and Smith-Causey is passionate about his work, too.

“I call myself one of the luckiest individuals in the world because I found this position at Healthier Moms and Babies because I was scrolling Facebook,” he says.

Smith-Causey

Although most of Smith-Causey’s career has been spent in social work, he graduated from Purdue and started out in the insurance industry in 2008. After a few short years, the father of two found himself teaching American Government at the Urban Prep Academy in Chicago. During his tenure there, he taught for two years and served as the Dean of Discipline.

Right before joining HMB, Smith-Causey spent time at Change Healthcare at Parkview. His work included helping patients with their insurance needs to assist with their care and treatment. But Wilkins says it was his experience working with middle and high school boys on the south side of Chicago, working as a football coach with Fort Wayne Community Schools, and just being a good dad that made Smith-Causey qualified for the position.

“Fatherhood is a passion of mine,” Smith-Causey says. So it’s no wonder he feels lucky to be a part of HMB.

Gregg Smith-Causey, right, and his family.

Since starting his new job in September 2019, he’s developed the DadUp Fatherhood Program, which pairs eligible dads with a fatherhood mentor who encourages and educates them. The program is designed to empower young dads to take an active role in the mom’s journey and the baby’s life.

Smith-Causey has been able to integrate and implement multiple programs and curriculum for fathers under this umbrella, including the 24/7 Curriculum sponsored by the National Fatherhood Initiative. The 24/7 Curriculum was developed out of a need to empower fathers to play a more active role in the lives of their children. The program is covered in 12 sessions, in which young or potential fathers are encouraged to be proactive, put first things first, and listen first, talk second. The program focuses on navigating tough aspects of life and difficult topics, such as: What it means to be a man, discipline, co-parenting, and dealing with anger.

“I had the joy of recently serving fathers in our DadUp Fatherhood Group where we used the 24/7 Dad Curriculum to discuss multiple topics important to fathers and fatherhood,” Smith-Causey says. The topics challenge the participants’ perspectives and help them realize their value. The men are encouraged to take a proactive role in their own health, understand their family history, and properly communicate, especially during the difficult times.

Healthier Moms & Babies is serving 355 families in Allen County.

“That class graduated mid-July after a 12 week period, and this has been my most rewarding experience up until this point,” Smith-Causey says. “To watch those guys grow during the 12 courses was amazing.”

The classes were held in-person at biweekly meetings from January to March. Then because of Covid-19, they met virtually via Zoom. Although it's not the same for Smith-Causey, he is thankful they had some in-person time together to set the tone for the program before the pandemic began.

“Getting to know those guys face-to-face is something I will cherish,” he says.

One of the most recent participants in the 24/7 Curriculum is Taylor Lantz, a 25-year-old Design Engineer in Southwest Fort Wayne who admits to being afraid when he learned of his fiance Bethany’s pregnancy. Lantz says he didn’t feel ready to be a father at the time, but working with Smith-Causey helped shift his mindset.

“Gregg does a great job of making you get into a deep discussion and thought,” Lantz says. “That really helped with me being the father that I want to be. I was surprised by how much deep thought was in the program and how, by talking through everything, you get a different perspective on things, totally in a good way.”

As you can imagine, each participant receives something different than others from the program. Lantz says the biggest impact the program had on his life was realizing his own self-worth as a father and partner. Before participating in the program, he didn’t know how to communicate his fears to Bethany, or even if it was worth mentioning in light of what she was going through.

The 24/7 curriculum helped him to understand it was okay and natural to be afraid.

“I learned that it was okay, and that communication with my fiance was everything,” he says. “It definitely made us closer.”

Now, as a graduate, Lantz tells anyone in a similar situation with a baby on the way that communication is everything.

“Do not be afraid to show emotion, keep negativity away from the baby, and don't be afraid to ask for help during the difficult times,” he says.

Smith-Causey says that even as a dad and facilitator himself, he can’t do it all alone either, so he has partnered with several organizations to make his work possible.

“I have been able to join and serve on multiple coalitions that serve our awesome city, and I have built many relationships and partnerships with other nonprofits and community resource centers,” he says.

Despite the long road ahead to achieve more equitable health outcomes in Allen County, Smith-Causey has a big vision for the future: Reaching more dads to build a legacy of thriving Black and Brown fatherhood here.

“I want to build a community of fathers and father figures that can build a never-ending bank of knowledge and experiences that can be passed down for generations,” he says.
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